Pyrénées-Orientales: Catalan culture meets French flair

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- Credit: Archant

Under a shimmering dome of sapphire sky where mountains arch and waves roll, Solange Hando experiences a meeting of minds

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- Credit: Archant

Are you dreaming of a home in the sun? Is your yearning for a place by the sea complicated by your desire to live near the mountains too? Are you drawn by authentic villages and affordable properties? Take a look at Pyrénées-Orientales, the Languedoc-Roussillon department, which sweeps down to the Spanish border. From the luminous shores of the Mediterranean to the high peaks of the eastern Pyrénées, it’s the most southerly department on the French mainland, yet it is barely a couple of hours from the UK, flying Ryanair or Flybe to Perpignan. Or you can travel via Paris by Eurostar and TGV.

CITY LIGHTS

Alight in Perpignan, the capital, and you are in for a surprise as the red and gold Catalan flag greets you alongside the French Tricolore. The Roussillon province only joined France in 1659, following the Treaty of the Pyrénées, and Perpignan remembers its glorious past under the Kings of Majorca and Aragon. The Royal Palace rises on the hilltop while in the town, the medieval gate of Castillet looks down on red roofs and church towers, and the stylish Place de La Loge where locals dine under the stars on balmy summer nights.

Colourful and cosmopolitan, Perpignan is an enticing mix of tree-lined avenues and quiet lanes, trendy boutiques, old-fashioned shops, secluded courtyards and breezy squares with a glowing red theatre – symbolising a local garnet – and a railway station immortalised by Salvador Dali. He called it the ‘Centre of the World’ and it certainly feels like it at festival time when crowds come to witness the haunting Good Friday procession or enjoy a touch of romance on St George’s day. According to legend, the patron saint of Catalans turned the dragon’s blood into a rose, and colour and fragrance are all around.

PRETTY FLAMINGO

Lapped by the River Têt and its small tributary La Basse, Perpignan is just 13km from the sea, where pink flamingos feed in the lagoons and vast sandy beaches stretch for 30km or so. It’s a fairly wild area with a mere scattering of resorts, among them Le Barcarès to the north, sprawling on the map but charming on the ground, festooned in waterways, nature reserves and pine woods. To the south, the wide beach of Argelès-sur-Mer claims the last of the sands. Blooming with mimosa and oleander, it’s a lively resort where pedestrian lanes brim with Catalan fabric, painted ceramics and colourful sarongs. But once the summer is over, only the breeze rustling through the trees disturbs the peace.

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The ‘Rocky Coast’ begins around the headland, all shingle coves and creeks framed by the green slopes of the Albères as the Pyrénées come ever closer to the sea. This is where Matisse and others loved to paint – from Banyuls and Port-Vendres, with its lovely harbour, to Collioure, a picture-perfect postcard, especially out of season, mirrored in twin coves with a mighty summer palace at the water’s edge, seafood restaurants and an old town criss-crossed with pastel-coloured lanes and stepped alleyways. All around, vineyards and olive groves tumble down the slopes while ancient forts bristle along the ridge where the green hinterland beckons with gems of its own.

VILLAGES AND MOUNTAINS

There, among the bucolic vineyards and orchards, you find myriad natural wonders – prehistoric caves, dramatic rocks and gorges – and a rich heritage from forts and citadels to Romanesque cloisters, remarkable abbeys and some of France’s Plus Beaux Villages, perched on hilltops with dizzying views or tucked in remote valleys. Villefranche-de-Conflent is just one of them, its mighty ramparts enclosed by towering cliffs and rushing mountain streams. But wherever you go, every village is delightful, a place to relax under the trees, play a game of pétanque with the locals or move along ever so gently to the sound of church bells or the smell of fresh bread drifting from the boulangerie.

Meanwhile, the Little Yellow Train climbs through the wild pastures and forests of the regional nature park, past Bolquère, the highest SNCF station in France, at 1,592 metres. On this ride, where the peaks approach 3,000 metres, you will find a stunning world of crystal-clear mountain lakes, and a sprinkling of popular resorts, the domain of skiers and husky sledgers in winter, riders and ramblers in summer. There are rare flowers and hot springs, chamois bouncing on the slopes and marmots twittering in the sun.

Mount Canigou, the sacred peak of all Catalans, rises to 2,784 metres, and is most dramatic on the summer solstice when a traditional bonfire is lit on the top and runners carry the flame to light others in the valley.

In clear weather, you can see Canigou from Perpignan and all along the coast. It is, as Kipling called it, a ‘magician among mountains’, guarding the diverse and scenic land of French Catalonia.

GOING TO MARKET

In a department with so much to offer, real estate still waits to be snapped up, from the coast to the mountains, from rural villages to the city. Properties range from modern apartments and village and town houses to mountain chalets and Mediterranean-style villas with patios and landscaped gardens.

Most older properties have long since been refurbished, with a few exceptions in Perpignan where a three-room flat in need of TLC is on sale at €98,000. Prices in the city are generally lower than on the coast, with a two-bedroom villa setting you back a mere €178,000. New developments include Coteaux Albera and Le Séville, with apartments from €109,000, and Demeures Albera where villas start at €196,000.

On the sandy coast, prices in Le Barcarès climb from just over €100,00 to €330,000, while the popular St-Cyprien-Plage begins at around €90,000 rising to top the €600,000 mark for a modern four-bedroom villa with pool, close to the beach and shops. Also worth a look are Canet-en-Roussillon and St-Laurent-de-la-Salanque, just inland from the coast and close to the lagoon.

Down south, squeezing between mountains and sea, the spectacular Rocky Coast has fewer options but we spotted a small ground floor apartment in Port-Vendres for €154,000, a stylish four-bedroom house in Collioure for €499,000 and in Banyuls, a lovely villa with swimming pool, plus sea and mountain views, for €372,000.

Inland, sought-after villages include Bagès, Céret and St-Génis-des-Fontaines but don’t expect rock-bottom prices. If you really want to step up, take a look at Laroque-des-Albères where a stunning villa with pool was recently priced at €1,350,000.

If you prefer the high mountains however, consider the year-round resort of Les Angles where properties range from bedsits, starting at around €55,000, to superb Alpine-style chalets for over €375,000.